Thursday, October 02, 2014

Pirates can't waste McCutchen's prime

Wednesday, Oct. 1, 2014, 11:20 p.m. 

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Pittsburgh is not alone among American cities in which great baseball players cast shadows. It's just that Roberto Clemente, our “Great One,” has his own bridge, and it's a commanding presence behind center field at baseball's most beautiful ballpark.

That's too bad.

Center field belongs to Andrew McCutchen, and all eyes should be on the ballplayer who has taken back late summers from the Steelers and early falls from the Penguins, the Pirate who pirated the top sporting spot in Pittsburgh from Troy Polamalu and Sidney Crosby.

This town belongs to McCutchen like it has no ballplayer since Clemente because he's provided what we thought was impossible.

Nights such as Wednesday were never going to happen again, remember?

The Pirates were losers. They were owned, operated and managed by presumed losers. They drafted and developed impending losers. Their players became losers, even the pretty good ones. Their fans felt like losers for sticking with the losers who spent summers disproving that hope did, indeed, spring eternal.

We weren't watching losers Wednesday night.

We were watching winners bonded by the ballplayer of this Pittsburgh generation and maybe a ballplayer for any Pittsburgh generation.

By many teammates' accounts, McCutchen arrived at spring training in February as a different person, and perhaps that was expected after he won the National League MVP last season. The returning McCutchen still was quick to cause a laugh, often with a spot-on impersonation, but he also appeared determined to send a message.

Players might come and go, as had pitcher A.J. Burnett, but McCutchen was still here, and clubs with MVPs should have only one objective.

“I just looked at us having an expectation, and that was to win the World Series,” McCutchen said. “Whatever it takes, that's what we're here to do.”

Whatever it takes. That's what The Man said.

So now it's up to everybody else because the last truly great Pirate proved one player can carry a club only so far.

Barry Bonds never carried those powerful Pirates clubs of the early 1990s to the World Series. He never carried them to a series win.

Neither has McCutchen, and while it's nice to think time is on his side, that never is the case for any professional athlete.

McCutchen will turn 28 on Oct. 10. Soon his speed will slow, and his body will break down, and he won't be the Pirates' best outfielder let alone their best player.

That's going to happen, and it's why opportunities like the one the Pirates had Wednesday cannot be wasted.

McCutchen is the National League's best player, so it's time the Pirates build the National League's best team around him. That will require hard decisions by management and a defining one (catcher Russell Martin's free agency) by ownership in the offseason.

The knock on owner Bob Nutting — that he won't commit enough money for a championship payroll — is unfair. The Pirates haven't had a potential championship roster to maintain or add to since Nutting replaced Kevin McClatchy as the majority owner.

Well, they had one going into Wednesday, and 40,629 — PNC Park's largest crowd — arrived in black, ready for the rising to continue.

So now that almost 5 million fans have paid to watch the Pirates over the past two seasons, this offseason is the time for Nutting to do right by the customers and by his best player.

It's time to build a better ballclub, and that means spending to keep Martin and Francisco Liriano and add another starter in free agency.

“Our payroll may be low. They get guys that aren't paid the most,” McCutchen said. “But somehow we get the job done.”

No, the job starts now. It's time for Nutting to start spending more so McCutchen can bridge a gap that is 35 years long, the one between the Pirates and a postseason series win.

Rob Rossi is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at or via Twitter @RobRossi_Trib.

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